The phrase Stockholm syndrome is often used to identify various situations where people who have been physically and/or psychologically held captive by others can come to take on many of the values and beliefs of their captors. This happens both to individuals and groups. Taiwan as an island nation — now a democracy — has certainly seen its share of such captive colonial situations in the past.
From the Dutch and Spanish periods on through Cheng Cheng-kung’s (鄭成功), known as Koxinga, fleeing Ming, the Manchu Qing, the Japanese and finally a last fleeing group, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), different generations of Taiwanese have suffered under various forms of “colonial captivity.” Yet despite that, it is remarkable that the Taiwanese have proved resilient not only in eventually shaking each off, but also in finally achieving both a unique Taiwanese identity and a vibrant democracy. The recent Sunflower movement has proven to be the final step in that process.
How do the Sunflowers represent the end of Taiwan’s Stockholm syndrome? Examine recent developments. Though the KMT’s one-party state was technically abandoned in 1987, Taiwan only got its first full taste of realistic democracy in 1992, when the KMT legislators who had had an unchallenged iron rice bowl since 1947 were finally forced to retire and the people could freely elect their replacements. That was the first step in the beginning of the end.
The next step came in 1996 when the public were given the right to elect their president. From then on things began to develop rapidly and due to a split in the KMT ranks, an opposition candidate was elected president in 2000. One might have thought at that time that the Taiwanese had finally thrown off the Stockholm syndrome caused by those who had inflicted 40 years of White Terror and Martial Law, but it was not to be. Elements, myths and vestiges of the syndrome remained.
One lingering myth was that the KMT was the only party that could handle the economic situation in Taiwan, so in 2008 when Taiwan’s economy was faltering, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was easily elected with his infamous “6-3-3” campaign pledge.
The myth that only the KMT had the necessary economic savvy had some basis in fact. First the KMT had killed off or imprisoned many of the educated Taiwanese leadership starting from the 228 Massacre onward and second they used “stolen state assets” to educate many of their own party cohorts abroad promising guaranteed government positions on return. This gave them the distinct advantage in education and experience. Look through the ranks of current KMT stalwarts and you will see that most got their doctorates pre-1992 and with state support.
Another distinct advantage for the KMT was that it ran a one-party state; they controlled the media and education systems so could bolster their ideas and image. With this control, they could easily hide the mistakes and miscalculations of the past and embellish accomplishments. Hearing only one interpretation of the story, many “captive” Taiwanese came to have positive feelings toward the people who had put them through 40 years of pain and torture and began to accept some of their values.
Another element of Stockholm syndrome is the erroneous “equation that a lack of present abuse is seen as an act of kindness instead of something normal opposed to something that should never have happened in the past.”
The election of Ma ironically proved to be the final tipping point in Taiwan’s shaking off Stockholm syndrome. Ma was first elected president in 2008 by a large majority; he was supposedly going to put together a savvy economic team to master Taiwan’s situation and he allegedly stood for clean anti-corrupt government. The coming years helped remove these scales from blinded Taiwanese eyes.
Ma chose Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) as his vice president and if anyone allegedly could master the economic threats it would be him. Four years of Siew proved to be futile. The KMT faced a whole different situation from the past when they not only were able to control the media to hide mistakes, embellish successes, but also could imprison dissenters.
The KMT also could no longer rely on aid from the US. The myth of economic prowess was being shattered, and as it broke, so did Ma’s image. His incompetence became evident, as did corruption as key figures in his administration proved guilty of abuses.
The current Sunflower generation represent a new chapter in Taiwanese history. They began elementary school when the Consensus of 1996 and free elections of the president were in effect. These students may not be that schooled in Taiwan’s past history of the White Terror and Martial Law, but they do know what democracy and free elections are.
Listening to the people is a cornerstone of democracy and these students recognized that though Ma could talk the talk, he did not walk the walk. Their current creative artwork in critical posters and derogatory sayings about Ma is evidence that they are free of any illusions about him and the KMT. They uphold the values of democracy and have no empathy with Taiwan’s “past captors.”
Looking at actions not words, the students have been able to call a spade a spade. They have quickly seen through Ma and the KMT’s promises and image of anti-corruption. When the notorious former gangster and pro-unification advocate Chang An-le (張安樂), the “White Wolf,” came out to endorse Ma’s cross-strait pact, he also tried to chastise the students. Chang said they were not good, obedient Chinese. The students’ answer was swift and to the point: Of course we are not, we are Taiwanese. Taiwanese have shaken off the last vestiges of Stockholm syndrome.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.